Preview: New Zealand vs. Slovakia
Qualifying for the World Cup may be good enough for New Zealand, but Slovakia is looking to make its trip to South Africa much more memorable.
Slovakia will try to get its World Cup debut off to a strong start Tuesday when it faces New Zealand for the first time in Rustenburg.
Slovakia, ranked 34th, is in its first major tournament since Czechoslovakia split in 1993.
The team earned its first appearance at the World Cup at the expense of the Czech Republic. The Slovaks went 7-2-1 to surprisingly top a qualifying group that included the Czechs and Poland, both of which qualified for the last two World Cups.
Slovakia fell short of reaching the 2006 Cup, losing 6-2 on aggregate to Spain in a playoff.
In South Africa, Slovakia is in solid position to advance from Group F, which includes reigning champion Italy, Paraguay and New Zealand – the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament at 78th.
Marek Hamsik will likely play a big part in any success for Slovakia. The 22-year-old midfielder is one of the best young playmakers in the world and has eight goals in 32 games for the national team, including game-winners in 2-1 qualifying victories over the Czechs and Northern Ireland.
Hamsik is coming off a strong season with Napoli in Italy’s Serie A, leading the team with 12 goals.
He’ll likely start behind forward Stanislav Sestak, who has 11 goals in 31 appearances with six coming in qualifying and another in a 3-0 win over Costa Rica on June 5.
Unlike Hamsik, Sestak is trying to shake off a difficult club season, finding the net six times in 29 games as Bochum was relegated from the German Bundesliga.
New Zealand is familiar with struggling in front of the net, having been outscored 8-3 in losing four of five friendlies heading into the World Cup.
That’s slightly better than the All Whites’ showing at last summer’s Confederations Cup as they failed to score while going 0-2-1.
Despite those poor showings, they might be happy to just reach the World Cup for the first time since 1982, when they went 0-3.
New Zealand’s qualification was made even easier when rival Australia switched from the Oceania region to Asia after the last World Cup to face stiffer competition.
The move paid off for New Zealand, which went 5-1-0 in a qualifying group that included New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu before beating Bahrain 1-0 on aggregate in a playoff on forward Rory Fallon’s goal.
Defender Ryan Neslen will try to shore up the All Whites’ leaky back line. He’s by far the team’s most accomplished player, spending the last five years with Blackburn in England’s Premier League.
Nelsen, who is captain for both club and country, is only one of seven All Whites who plays in Europe while two members of the team – midfielders Simon Elliott and David Mulligan – are free agents.